EPA struggling with transparency too–an email faux pas

Here’s a dilemma: one of the cardinal rules of preparing an organization for a crisis is to train the media spokesperson and train those who are not the spokespeople to “refer and defer” as my friend Chuck Wolf explains.

But what would the media do with a “secret copy” of an email that says to an employee “you are not to talk to a reporter but instead refer the reporter to an appropriate spokesperson.” Why that reporter is going to scream: COVER-UP!

That’s what seems to me behind this story from the San Francisco Chronicle about the EPA and an email sent to managers telling them to remind their employees to not talk to investigators. Now, I am suspecting there is a perfectly good rationale for this–staff authorized by management should be the ones to engage at that level. However, that is not how this story presents it and it looks very much like the EPA top management is trying to control the investigation process and hide something.

So, the “secret email” becomes big news. I have no idea what might be under investigation. I don’t really care. As a reader of this story all I take away is that the EPA–a government agency no less–is trying to hide something from the government. E gads–let’s find out what they are hiding!

Now, blog monitoring as a customer service strategy

Got a gripe with a company? Want to get sweet revenge by ranting on your blog site? Well, you can probably expect an email or call from the company you are trashing. At least that is what one blogger found to his surprise.

Blog monitoring, along with media monitoring is becoming essential part of the public relations business. But now it is becoming part of the customer service business. And that is a good thing. While social media and the internet can spread the bad news faster than any physical watercooler, they also offer the subject of these rants the opportunity to listen in. And they are beginning to. It is a Distant Early Warning system–a way of heading off serious problems before they become serious problems. For crisis communicators and issue managers the lessons ought to be obvious. If you are not putting in place a simple, easy way to track the conversations online about your organization, it’s like a company under threat of war shutting off all their radars. Not smart.

Who reads news releases?

Well, the media of course. That’s why they are called “press releases.” Wrong. 50% of today’s news releases are now read by the public. At least according to this advertisement for a PR University class on writing and distributing news releases.

Will that percentage decline? No. An important point for communicators today is you are no longer writing just for a reporter. Think about the implications. I saw an ad recently for a writing seminar by PR expert Ann Wylie saying the inverted pyramid style is dead, and the narrative or feature style is now or should be commonplace for press releases. Here’s why–it’s for the public, the general reader, not the professional journalist. The post media world is here to stay–and communication styles and methods have got to change to meet that new reality.

New Orleans Oil Spill–what communicators need to know

The Coast Guard is responding to a major oil spill in New Orleans that is shutting down a lot of shipping traffic on the Mississippi new New Orleans. Since we work with the Coast Guard and a lot of major oil and shipping companies on crisis communication, each event provides important lessons learned. A quick observation here. Google “new orleans oil spill” and you will quickly see how social media spins an event like this.

The headlines from nola.com focus on the blame game immediately–in this case unlicensed tug operators.

However, much of the blog traffic relating to the spill, like most blog traffic is political–and most very leftish it appears. This comment on the Barack Obama website links McCain’s decision not to come to New Orleans to support offshore drilling to the spill. Another blog comment (along with video of the spill from Jackson Square) is more direct–this spill shows what would happen if McCain becomes president and the moratorium on offshore drilling is removed. Never mind the fact that the spill had nothing to do with offshore drilling other than it involves a petroleum product.

The lessons ought to be clear. Communicators from companies and organizations responding to a major event like this need to be prepared for an awful lot of chatter that is way off the mark in terms of relevance, accuracy, and value. But the chatter will be significant. An event like this will be used, in more powerful ways than ever, to support the agendas of the observers. It is really no different from watercooler conversation because this kind of commenting and spinning and rumor mongering and misinformation has always occurred. Just never with the speed, volume, and potential impact that there is today.

Are we taking corporate responsibility too far?

Here’s an intriguing article from Ad Age by Jonathan Salem Baskin. He argues against the current strong trend toward CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and as the subtitle suggests believes “there is no morality inherent in corporate functions.”

I suspect that Mr. Baskin wants to stir debate and discussion and this is very valuable–but is he serious? He asks “where is it in the game rules that companies have to be “responsible” for anything other than profits. I’ll tell you where it is–it is called being a member of the human race. It is called the moral code. It is the well accepted idea that one should treat others as they wish others to treat them. Those too are rules to the game.

Not only is Mr. Baskin out to lunch on this, he is also out of touch. I’m pleased that PRSA is having Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist as a keynote speaker. Mr. Newmark is demonstrating a very different and intriguing model–profits don’t matter. I still subscribe to Peter Drucker’s formula which said profits are the right to do business in the future. Clearly Mr. Baskin sees profits as something quite different from that. But the idea of outrageous, insane, ungodly profits doesn’t have the appeal to a great many people in the corporate world. And young people are turning against big corporate global giants precisely because of the irresponsible position of people like Mr. Baskin.

Red Cross under attack

This July 17 New York Times article is a blistering attack on the reputation of one of the world’s most respected and revered non-profit organizations–the Red Cross. Having met some of the key communication leaders of this organization, I was eager to observe them effectively responding to the very serious allegations in this article.

There were very few responses contained within the article. This is surprising since the problems with the blood supply are not new with FDA criticism dating back to 1993 according to the article. Almost no one from the organization was quoted. Was this because they were unavailable, not asked, or were their responses simply not included. The overall message was covered it seems–we know there are problems and we are working on solutions, suggests that there was more dialog than one would guess reading from the article. And the big key message was not delivered by a key spokesperson, but buried in the middle of the article as a simple statement–the Red Cross blood supply is among the safest in the world.

Concerned that they may not be aggressively responding to this very serious challenge, I checked their organization website. No reference. Lots of good stories about how the Red Cross is responding to disasters, but nothing about the damning accusations of this article and from the FDA. I’m disappointed. The Red Cross is one of the truly great American institutions with a proud and honored history and a critical role to play in our future. Its reputation needs protection. Looks to me like they need to understand that reputation attacks of this seriousness constitute a disaster–and respond accordingly.

Arlington Cemetery communicator pays price for transparency

According to the Dana Millbank column in Washington Post, Gina Gray got the boot for trying to increase media access to military funerals held at Arlington National Cemetery.

My first reaction is outrage–in this case against Robert Gates for, as the article suggests, acting just like Donald Rumsfeld. If all that there was to this story is that a PR person was not following a highly questionable procedure of restricting access to military funerals even when families allowed it, the outrage would maybe be appropriate. And outrage is clearly what the writer of this story wanted.

However, hold on, not so fast. Why do I think there is more to the story than this? Maybe it is because having personal experience with someone in high government circles who got the boot because of supposed PR bad judgment and seeing how poorly and inaccurately the real story was presented by none other than the same publication running this story. Maybe it is because the intention to grab attention and create outrage is so patently obvious. And maybe it is because reading about the interchange between Ms. Gray and her supervisor(s) leads me to believe there is a lot more to the story than is being told here.

The fact is, we know nothing about the facts based on this story. So intelligent readers should not come to any judgments relating to either Ms. Gray nor Robert Gates nor the evil supervisors involved. But that is not what the reporter intends. He has made a judgment and wants us to make one too. I suspect he judgment was made before he even found out about this whistleblower–the judment being that this administration is evil, wants to hide the dark side of the war and now this proves that Rumsfeld’s replacement is no better than he is. And Ms. Milbank’s dismissal proves his pre-judgment right.

This kind of reporting fits exactly into the “white hats” and “black hats” melodrama-styled reporting that I think is so damaging to reputations and above all the reputation of journalism itself. Is there any question who the white hats and black hats are? The reality is that reality is not so simple. Simplifying reality in this way makes for good story telling and good entertainment–which is exactly why it is done. But it does little to help inform the reader about what is really happening and why so we can make intelligent judgments.

New York Times doesn't like Fox News–duh

I found this article by David Carr of the New York Times about Fox News entertaining. I read it a couple of times and although there are some begrudging indications of some kind of respect the basic messages seem to be: 1) I hate Fox News and am pee-ohd that they are still rated number one 2) They alter pictures of New York Times reporters and don’t tell people they altered them 3) They are far too aggressive in dealing with negative reporting.

The article would make a good study in someone trying to be somewhat fair and balanced in covering someone or something that he/she clearly can’t stand. It doesn’t work very well. Mostly I find the attack by what has been considered by many to be the bastion of unbalanced, liberal reporting against the new bastion of conservative reporting to be quite funny. Here’s a sample: Fox News found a huge runway and enormous success by setting aside the conventions of bloodless objectivity, but along the way, it altered the rules of engagement between reporters and the media organizations they cover. The conventions of bloodless objectivity? Why didn’t he just say, OK, we were never unbiased either but at least we were more polite about it. This is just silliness. Not sure what is bothering him more–the “enormous success” or the fact that the bias fell on the other side of the political spectrum.

But of more interest is the discussion within this article about the changing nature of media. It is no accident that Fox News apparently has taken a political approach to protecting its reputation. This approach–the war room strategy I call it in my book–was perfected by President Clinton in his first campaign and detailed in George Stephanapoulis’s (spelling?) book. It was the strategy of continual monitoring for attacks and then very rapid response to anything emerging that even smelled like an attack. It was very effective for the Clintons and has been adopted by all campaigns since then so that it has become part and parcel of our political discourse. I advocated in Now Is Too Late that corporations with reputations at risk should adopt this. Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox News, saw this strategy work first hand and to his detriment in the campaign to re-elect the First Bush. He took its lessons to heart and put it in practice at Fox News–that’s the gist of Carr’s bitterness.

The PR head of Fox News commented: “Yes, we are an aggressive department in a passive industry, and believe me, the executives and talent appreciate it,” Mr. Lewis said, adding that with the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of blogs, a new kind of engagement and activism was required.

That is the important lesson. While I don’t consider the news business to be a “passive industry,” the kind of aggressiveness in maintaining its reputation and taking on its critics is symptomatic of the era of instant news where reputations are at higher risk largely because of the vicious competition for public attention. It’s this kind of aggressiveness–if not the same tactics suggested by Carr–that are essential for reputation protection for all organizations. And if Mr. Carr is practicing these principles and doesn’t like that I am criticizing him for faulting Fox for employing them, then he will get on my case and soon.

Assisting California Wildfire Information Management

We at PIER Systems were pleased to be able to respond to a request from the US Forest Service and CalFire to assist with public information management for the numerous wildfires ravaging northern California. One report from our senior vice president who was on-scene with the response team told about the incredible implementation of the Incident Command System (ICS). He said it was no wonder that the fire service created the ICS system and their skill in making full use of its processes was truly impressive. It is a little surprising however that with the number of ICS-based incident management technology solutions available that their use of it still is completely paper-bound. Hey, paper works–it has for years.

It is terrific to have the opportunity to work with these seasoned professionals and to have them explore the communication technology that is a direct result of the management processes that they themselves designed and put in place.

For more information about the wildfires (and to see PIER in action:) www.jointinformation.com.

To view the press release: http://www.piersystems.com/go/doc/1533/214529/